While much of the world’s attention has been focused on the devastation and slaughter in Ukraine, one gun massacre after another continues in the United States.

Just yesterday a young eighteen years old gunman murdered at least 19 children and 2 teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. So far there have been 27 school shootings this year. Yesterday’s was the deadliest, since a gunman killed 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012. There is little known about the motivation of yesterday’s killer, except that he wanted to kill. Before going to the school he shot his grandmother. He had purchased the guns right after his eighteenth birthday.

On Saturday, May 14, 2022, when another 18 years old gunman opened fire at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y. killing 10 people and injuring three more, we know he was motivated by white supremacy. Almost all of the Buffalo victims were Black. Prior to the shooting he had posted a manifesto, inspired by “the great replacement theory,” a racist conspiracy spreading in a number of Western countries.

The great replacement theory is the far-right belief that people from minority populations are replacing the existing white, largely Christian population. It inspired not only the Buffalo shooter but earlier mass killings, including the 2015 Charleston church shooting, the 2018 Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting, the 2019 shooting at a Walmart in El Paso and the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand.

Ironically many white Christian nationalists are strong supporters of “the great replacement.” There is absolutely nothing “Christian” about it. The historical Jesus – Yeshua – was not even white. He was a dark-skinned, broad-minded, and courageously prophetic man. He was hardly a racist, which was the main focus of his Good Samaritan account. And Yeshua clearly and painfully understood the importance of a separation of state and religion.

The term “the great replacement” was coined by a French nationalist writer, Renaud Camus (b. 1946), in his 2011 book titled Le Grand Remplacement. Camus argued that white Europeans are being “colonized” by non-white immigrants and face a threat of “extinction.” Former U.S. President Trump propelled the replacement theory into mainstream U.S. politics with his fear of white U.S. Americans being “replaced by minorities.” And most recently it has inspired Marine LePen and her party in France.

The extremist ideology that non-white immigration will ultimately destroy white values and western civilization has found favor with the top media figure on Fox News as well as quite a collection of politicians, who have convinced themselves that Democrats are operating an open-door immigration policy to “replace” Republican voters with people of color.

U.S. society is going through very difficult days. More than ever there is a great need for well informed people, for critical thinking, and for courageous speech and action.

President Joseph Biden warned about U.S. racism on Tuesday, May 17th, when he observed: “White supremacy is a poison … and it’s been allowed to fester and grow right in front of our eyes.” I agree with the President but would stress that the country is facing twin inter-connected socio-cultural poisons: racism and gun violence. During an address from the Roosevelt Room at the White House after news of the yesterday’s mass killing in Texas, President Biden said: “Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen? Where in God’s name is our backbone?”

Well, it is indeed a strange culture that bans books and bans Cuban cigars but not guns. I call it the gun culture.

For your summer reading about the gun culture, I recommend: Enough!: Solving America’s Gun Violence Crisis by Thomas Gabor (Center for the Study of Gun Violence, 2019). The author is a Canadian criminologist who was a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa for thirty years. He received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University in 1983. Since his retirement, Thomas Gabor has worked as a consultant on gun violence, crime, and related issues.

And for summer reading about racism and replacement, I recommend a book by Kathleen Belew, assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago and an international authority on the white-power movement. Her book is: Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. (Harvard University Press, 2018)

I am not running away from the issues, but I am running away from “For Another Voice” for a while. In keeping with my annual tradition, I will be away from my blog for about a month. Periodically, we all need time to relax, reflect, and refresh body and spirit.

I hope to be back with you around the Fourth of July.

Many kind regards.

  • Jack

Thoughts About Abortion and Pro-Life

I remember the days before the 1973 Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade. Many women died in those days from pregnancy complications or from the back-alley abortions that impoverished women or frightened teenagers inevitably sought.

I remember when President Bill Clinton said in 1992 that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” I remember as well, about the same time, a serious conversation about abortion with a now deceased European cardinal.

The cardinal had been publicly quite well-known for his very strong opposition to abortion. He invited me, however, as an historical theologian, to interview him about the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965). Just the two of us. After talking about the Council, I asked him if he really thought abortion could never be justified. He stared at me in silence for a minute and then said: “Not for publication! My younger sister was a missionary nun in Africa. She was raped and became pregnant. I contacted a missionary doctor, paid him, and ordered him to perform an abortion on my sister, and then to keep his mouth shut.”

Well, I did write about abortion in February 2021. But in view of the heated and vitriolic debate about Roe v. Wade and a possible reversal of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision, I would like to return to it this week.

When speaking or writing about abortion, I believe we need to promote dialogue with civility: to build respectful conversation bridges not blow them up. Respectful conversation, of course, must also be honest conversation.

We need a clear clarification of terms. Some equate the “anti-abortion” position with the “Pro-Life” position. Quite often this is not the case, however. A great number of contemporary U.S. anti-abortion political and religious leaders support capital punishment and torture and ignore poverty, healthcare, and the environment.

Unfortunately, for many religious and political conservatives, “Pro-Life” often becomes just convenient rhetoric for avoiding the broad spectrum of urgent contemporary life issues.

As a Catholic I remember and applauded Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, and his “Seamless Garment” appeal for a consistent ethic of life with attention to the whole array of life issues. In a December 6, 1983 Fordham University lecture, Bernardin said: “The spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill.” He challenged Catholics to view as “a seamless garment” diverse issues, not just abortion, but also nuclear weapons, the battle against poverty, and human rights violations at home and abroad. Bernardin was President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1974 to 1977. Unfortunately Bernardin’s “Seamless Garment” was criticized by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger while he was serving as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger, the later Pope Benedict XVI, feared the “Seamless Garment” approach would diminish the unique evil of abortion. More recently, Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles criticized the “seamless garment” approach in 2016 because he felt it results in “a mistaken idea that all issues are morally equivalent.”

Direct abortion is the termination of a pregnancy by removal or expulsion of an embryo or fetus before it can survive outside the uterus. An abortion that occurs without intervention is known as a miscarriage or spontaneous abortion. Miscarriage is the most common complication of early pregnancy. Among women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is between 10% and 20%.

U.S. attitudes about abortion have changed significantly since the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. According to a new poll by NBC, support for abortion rights has hit a new high, with 63% of U.S. Americans opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade. Only 5% of U.S. Americans say abortion should be illegal in all cases. According to Pew Forum, 83% of religiously unaffiliated U.S. Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do nearly two-thirds of black Protestants (64%), six-in-ten white mainline Protestants (60%) and a majority of US Catholics (56%).

On Saturday, May 14, 2022, thousands gathered in Washington DC and at hundreds of events across the United States to rally for abortion rights, as a direct response to the leaked draft of an opinion by the Supreme Court indicating that it is positioned to overturn Roe v. Wade,

Most studies confirm that criminalizing abortion doesn’t lead to fewer abortions. But it leads to more women dying from unsafe procedures. The most recent study of the U.S. abortion rate indicates that the rate is now at its lowest since legalization in 1973. Researchers attribute this decline to better sex education and greater availability of contraceptives, reducing the rate of unintended pregnancies in general and leading in particular to an historically low teen pregnancy rate.

Anti-abortion supporters argue that abortion is morally wrong on the basis that a fetus is an innocent human person or because a fetus is a potential life that will, in most cases, develop into a fully functional human being. Some believe that a fetus is a person upon conception. Some in favor of abortion argue that abortion is morally permissible because a woman has a right to control her own body and its life-support functions. This position simply ignores the question about whether or not the fetus is an innocent human person or prioritizes the rights of the woman over the rights of the fetus, whether or not it is a person.

Are fertilized eggs human life? Surprisingly between 30% and 40% of all fertilized eggs miscarry, often before the pregnancy is known. Some fertilized eggs develop into tumors. The question of when an embryo or fetus is a human life is still being debated with a variety of scientific and ethical opinions and theories. A good example, perhaps, concerns brain activity. If we use the idea of brain death as the criterion for dying, then the brain waves’ beginning would be the start of life. If one believes that death occurs when brain waves in the cerebral cortex cease to exist, then one could propose that human life begins, when brain activity starts around the 23rd week of a normal 40 week human pregnancy.

Some theologians suggest that human life begins with “ensoulment.” The thirteenth century philosopher-theologian, Thomas Aquinas, drawing on the philosophy of the fourth century BCE Aristotle, thought the fetus receives a soul 40 or 80 days after conception, depending on gender: 40 days for males and 80 days for females, because females are “defective and misbegotten.”

In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV set “ensoulment” at 166 days of pregnancy, almost 24 weeks. In 1869, Pope Pius IX moved the “ensoulment” clock to the moment of conception under penalty of excommunication, influenced, it was said, by scientific discoveries in the 1820s and 1830s. Nevertheless, the matter is still subject to debate in the Catholic Church.

When it comes to abortion, people want to see clear-cut answers about what is right or wrong. Frankly, I don’t think the answers are always that clear-cut. Some people get quite upset and angry when I say that. Sorry, but the question of when human life begins still gets a mixture of answers. Some are more biologically medieval than contemporary. People can and must make prudential judgments.

Right now, indeed, I believe the best responses about the morality of abortion and the legalization of abortion are found in sincere conscientious reflection and decision-making. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, there are situations in which abortion can be medically necessary due to serious problems connected with fetal development or to save the life of the pregnant woman. Then it is indeed a matter of personal conscience and decision-making.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, the human person “has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions.” This teaching is clearly stated and affirmed, specifically, in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes, where we read: “In the depths of our conscience, we detect a law which does not impose, but which holds us to obedience…. As the innermost and inviolable part of the person, conscience is our encounter with the God who made us and wills our good.”

The formation of conscience is primary and depends on the traditional sources of ethical knowledge: scripture, tradition, reason/science, and experience. Yes of course, this means that people of good will and conscience can disagree, even on the absolute but not infallible moral norms of the Catholic Church. That is why we need to build bridges and respectfully study, discuss, work, and learn together.

And a final observation. The contemporary U.S. far-right wants to use the power of the government to enforce, on the majority of U.S. Americans, the beliefs of a radical minority of U.S. Americans. If the Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade, it is very likely that the far-right will also push to have the Supreme Court reverse the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges landmark civil rights case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples. In either case, Pandora’s Box will be thrown wide open.

  • Jack

PS I am posting this reflection on Thursday, May 19. My next reflection will be on Thursday – Ascension Thursday – May 26. Then I will take my annual summer R&R.

Evolution and Human Understanding and Ethical Behavior

A friend commented about my post of last week: “You seem overly strong on evolution.”
Perhaps I am but as an historical theologian I am very much aware of changes in human understanding and ethical behavior. I see these changes as part of what I would call cultural evolution. Evolution is about much more than the arrival of the first human beings. It is about our evolving understanding of what it means to be a human being, about what is natural or unnatural, and about what is moral or immoral behavior.

Slavery, for example, once existed in many cultures. In the earliest written records, slavery is simply an accepted institution. The Code of Hammurabi (c. 1760 BCE) prescribed death for anyone who helped a slave escape or who sheltered a fugitive slave. The Bible mentions slavery as an established institution.
Even after the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, many Southerners refused to revise their proslavery views. In their minds, slavery had been divinely sanctioned. They pointed to texts like Ephesians 6:5-8 where Paul states: “Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ.”

Today we can affirm that slavery is neither natural nor moral.

Another example of cultural evolution is moving away from misogyny and the cultural denigration of women. The historical Jesus taught and acted in ways we might consider feminist today. Jesus promoted equality, showing that women and men are equal in dignity and value and spiritual depth. Women were the first official witnesses that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Nevertheless by the second century, as Christianity moved into the Patristics Age, strongly influenced by “Church Fathers” like Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202 CE) and Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220 CE) who said that being a female is a curse given by God, the virus of misogyny began to infect church leadership. It lasted a long time.

Even medieval Christian giants, like Thomas Aquinas, were distorted and demeaning misogynists. Aquinas often cited with approval Aristotle’s infamous affirmation that “the female is a misbegotten male.” And Aquinas himself declared that women are “deficiens et occasionatus” – defective and misbegotten. (ST Ia q.92, a.1, Obj. 1)

In Western culture misogyny has lasted a very long time. I was surprised and amazed, for instance, that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, in a draft opinion obtained and published last week by Politico, had based his justifications for overturning Roe v. Wade on Sir Matthew Hale, a 17th-century English judge and jurist. Hale’s misogynist arguments have caused damage to women for hundreds of years.

Hale (1609 – 1676), just like a lot of fundamentalist extremists today, believed that women were made from Adam’s rib and that therefore God did not make women as autonomous beings but as obedient helpmates for men doing — whatever men wanted. In his treatise Historia Placitorum Coronæ (“The History of the Pleas of the Crown”) Matthew Hale affirmed that marital rape was totally legal, because a man owned a woman’s body as an extension of his own and could do whatever he desired. Hale was also responsible for the trial and execution of women for witchcraft. His legal opinions would be used as a base for state execution of women and children both in England and in the Americas. Those women executed for witchcraft were overwhelmingly poor and single. Most were widows. Judge Hale and his contemporaries considered independent women a serious threat in society, because they were not owned and controlled by a father or a husband. That meant such women were unnatural, dangerous and often evil. Thanks to Hale, there was even a serious debate about whether or not women, who were not Christian, were even human beings.

Nevertheless, in our current phase of cultural evolution, most people would argue that misogyny is neither natural nor moral.

Just in my lifetime I have seen several evolutions in the understanding of human nature and human dignity.

I remember when black people, where I was growing up, were demeaned as inferior humans. I remember when I was in high school one of my uncles, using his favorite ethnic slur, said “Ni**ers have small brains” making them incapable of abstract thinking. Then he laughed and said “but Ni**er men have big sex organs, making them natural-born rapists.” Disgusting.

My uncle was not pleased, but I was delighted when, in college, my classmates and I happily participated in the 1963 civil rights march in Detroit. It was the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history.

I remember, as a Catholic boy with a Protestant Dad, when the local Catholic priest told my fourth grade class that we as Catholic boys and girls “had the true faith” but those Protestants belonged to “a false religion.” I found it crazy and painful. And it is pure nonsense. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is much bigger than the Church of Rome.

And as an obnoxious kid, I remember joking about the “Red Skins” (Native Americans) and praising General George Custer (1839 – 1876) who fought Native Americans in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory. He was killed along with all of the five companies he led. This action became romanticized as “Custer’s Last Stand.” Jack was such an ignoramus. But his understanding and values have evolved. Change happens.

Cultural evolution continues. Today we defend LBGTQ rights. I do support same-sex marriage. In fact, right now 70% of U.S. adults support same-sex marriage. The Catechism of the Catholic Church still teaches that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered.” That teaching, in time, will change. Remember that great churchmen once taught that women are “defective and misbegotten.” The Catholic Church is a slow-change institution.

Nevertheless, we do have changed understandings. Changed understandings, however, are not enough. Changed understandings demand changed behavior.

Jesus was not a racist. He was not a misogynist. He said nothing about homosexuality. He was prophetic, not just in words but primarily in his ethical behavior, showing acceptance, care, and compassion for all people. Jesus was radically transformative.

  • Jack

A Springtime Meditation about CREATOR and the Universe

(Vincent Van Gogh: Starry Night Painting, 1889)

Staring into space on a clear night with a bright moon and many stars, I began thinking about little Earth our big Universe.

It all started 13.8 billion years ago. God, whom we call CREATOR, made the decision to bring about space-time in a dimensionless point containing immeasurable mass-energy causing the Big Bang, first proposed in 1931 by the Belgian priest, physicist, and professor at the University of Leuven, Georges Lemaître (1894 – 1966).

The Big Bang was a big birth. It was when all matter, energy, time, and space began. It started at a single point and evolved into the expanding Universe that people today investigate with particle accelerators, microscopes, and telescopes. And some with wondering eyes, standing in the backyard on a cool but clear spring night.

CREATOR’S Universe is still in evolution. The size of the observable Universe is approximately 93 billion lightyears in diameter at the present day. Astronomers suggest there may be 2 trillion galaxies in the observable Universe. The distance covered in one lightyear is 5.88 trillion miles. Our Earth is so tiny in comparison.

Our Christian tradition holds that God is CREATOR and sustains everything. We stand awestruck. CREATOR is beyond our imagination. The prologue to John’s Gospel reminds us: “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was God.” At the same time God, CREATOR, is personal and continually interacting with an evolving Universe and of course with an evolving humanity.

Reality is breath-taking if we remain alert, keeping eyes, minds, and hearts open. Sometimes I think people surrender to a kind of lazy theology. They give up really thinking about God and our experiences of divinity today. Lazy theology just repeats what theologians of the past have said, without giving it much thought.

In fact, in an active theology, there is an inseparable connection between theology, spirituality, and contemporary experience. It anchored in contemplative consciousness about the life-giving presence of CREATOR.

We stand today at a new threshold in human history. Certainly the shock and horror of terrorism and war continue to haunt us — such clear signs of the alienation and hatred that have too often characterized human history. Nevertheless, at the same time there are also reflections of the best in human nature, as people around the world continue to hold a vision of peace and justice and demonstrate the love and heroism that reflect a greater humanity. Perspective is important.

The epic of our evolving Universe, so often retold by scientists, theologians, and philosophers, is a still-developing story. No matter how it is described or what theories are proposed about it, evolution is a fact of life. The Universe continues to expand and evolve.

Humankind evolves as well. But it also operates at a level involving choice and conscious relationships with CREATOR and neighbors. Since the Big Bang, there have been three phases of evolution: material, biological, and transcendent. Now is the time to focus on the transcendent.

Transcendent knowing involves a recognition that we are essentially one with CREATOR and the evolving Universe. Staring into space a few days ago I had this strong feeling that now is the time to really ponder the transcendent. For many people, spirituality and the inner life are coming into focus more clearly. Spirituality is what brings about an inner change in a human being. Spirituality is not just talking about CREATOR but experiencing CREATOR. To do this we go from our heads to our hearts.

The cultivation of transcendent awareness creates a broader life perspective through which we can more wisely embrace new challenges and opportunities. Material for meditation…

Like his great Hebrew predecessors, Jesus spoke CREATOR’S message to a world in danger of going spiritually blind and deaf.

Life’s deepest meaning, Jesus claimed, is discovered in relationship to CREATOR and in the establishment of a just and caring society. The teachings of Jesus are dominated by his witness to CREATOR’S love for humankind and our need to let that love flow through us to others, even – difficult as it may be — to those who attack and torment us.

Yes, with wondering eyes staring into a clear and star-filled sky a few nights ago, I thought about many things. Older people do that.

I thought, for instance, about Yuri Gagarin (1934 – 1968) the Soviet pilot and cosmonaut who became the first human to journey into outer space on April 12, 1961. I remember his reportedly saying: “I went up to space, but I didn’t encounter God.” I was eighteen years old at the time and said: this guy’s religious understanding is short-sighted.Today I would say: he needed not only better education but spiritual direction.

And…I also thought about Vincent Van Gogh’s “Stary Night” and Psalm 19: “The heavens proclaim the glory of Creator. The skies display Creator’s craftsmanship.”

CREATOR travels with us in our human journeys, even when cruel human events cloud our vision.

  • Jack